The Case of Film FX

Today we are talking about Effects in film-making! There is a lot of ground to cover, so today we will focus on the history of Special and Visual Effects, and discuss our favorite examples of practical effects! We plan on having a part 2 where we will dive into digital effects, as well as discuss some of the best effects artists of all time. 


In film, there are Special Effects or SFX and there are Visual Effects VFX. Special effects happen on set in real time while filming, like make-up, or fake blood. Visual effects are shot separately and added to the film through editing later on. 

When we talk about effects, we generally break it up into two kinds: practical and digital. Practical effects are used making real-life materials and can be either Special or Visual, but digital effects are ONLY visual. Did we lose you? 

So let’s use an example like Star Wars (1977). R2D2 is a special effect that is also practical. But, the miniatures that were created for scenes in space are visual effects that are also practical. In the Star Wars prequels, digital effects were used in place of practical effects and all are considered visual because they were added in post. 

Here at The Black Case Diaries, we are big fans of practical effects. But, it’s fair to say that digital effects are often a good option. In pretty much every movie that is released today, there is a mixture of practical and digital effects. Digital effects are becoming much cheaper and easier to create, and the studios have been favoring them over practical for much of the last decade. 

Today, we are going to cover the history of film effects, and discuss some of our favorite techniques! We will be focusing on practical effects today, and we plan on discussing great digital effects an a future episode. 


  • We’ve already talked about the birth of film, the Lumiere brothers and Edison’s Kinetograph (This can be found in our episode about cinematography.)  It turns out, special effects are about as old as film itself!
    • In 1895, Thomas Edison produced a re-enactment of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. Directed by Alfred Clark, the movie was only 18 seconds long and featured the first death scene in film! It was also one of the first to have trained actors, and to utilize a special effect. Just when the executioner’s axe rises, there is a cut, and the actor playing Mary is replaced with a mannequin. 
  • We have people like Edison and the Lumiere Brothers to thank for figuring out how to technically create film and even early effects, but it was George Méliès that elevated special effects into an artform. 
    • Méliès attended a Lumiere Brothers show, and developed his own prototype camera with the help of two engineers in this theater workshop. He brought his illusions to the screen and today is considered to be the father of film effects.
      • He popularized substitution splices, time lapse, multiple exposures, dissolves, and hand-painted color; so he was a pioneer in both special and visual effects.
    • Some of his films that really showcase his abilities are: Cinderella (1899), The Man With the Rubber Head (1901), and quite possibly his most famous film, A Trip to the Moon (1902) 


      • In an AV Club article they say: “Méliès brought a stage magician’s know-how and sense of wonder to the new art of film, creating a cinema of the impossible, filled with alchemists and Jules Verne-ian contraptions, imps and wayward body parts.”
  • Other Pioneers and Techniques
    • G. A. Smith patented the double exposure in England, using the technique to create a ghost in his film “The Corsican Brothers” (1909)
      • Double exposure; exposing film twice with two different images. Generally the second image is translucent and has ghost-like qualities.
    • Some filmmakers would film tragic events as they were occurring, and would recreate them with miniatures and paintings. For example, Albert Smith and Stuart Blackton made films about the tragic Windsor Hotel Fire and Edison mimicked the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
    • Edwin S Porter gave the world a great early example of Special Effects in “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. This was one of the first times that effects were used in service to the plot, rather than as a spectacle.
  • Even though effects had been around since the beginning of film, they didn’t get any screen credits until the 1920’s.
  • In the 1930s, films like King Kong and Frankenstein were enthralling audiences with stop-motion, miniatures, rear-projection, and paintings. The first Oscar for visual effects was given in 1939 to a film called, “The Rains Came” over “The Wizard of Oz.” 

Since then, Hollywood has continued to use similar techniques for big budget films. Although it may seem that every action or fantasy film today is nothing but computer generation, almost every film uses both practical and digital effects. In fact, effects like fire or explosions are almost always practical, because matching the randomness of fire or the correct amount of light reflection can be a huge challenge. We’re going to discuss some of our favorite kinds of Special and Visual effects, using in-camera techniques or physical materials. In other words: practical. 

Favorite Practical Techniques

  • SFX Make-up
    • Jack Pierce
      • During Universal’s classic horror period, Jack Pierce innovated special effects make-up. His hideous creations from Frankenstein’s Monster to the Wolfman terrified and amazed generations of movie-goers.
      • Although he worked on Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster was his first true masterpiece. He read medical journals to find out exactly how a head would look if it were split open and then stitched back together. 
      • The head was made of layers of collodion and cotton, and took four hours to apply.
    • Latex
      • Liquid latex is used in many different ways to create different looks.
      • Liquid latex typically is made of latex, water, and a tiny amount of ammonia.
        • It can be used to resemble cuts, burns, or lacerations.
        • It also has the ability to be used as an adhesive to attach prosthetics.  For example a bald cap does this for wigs.
      • An American Werewolf in London
        • Winner 1982 Oscar for Make-up
    • Prosthetics 
      • Typically before a prosthetic for an actor is made, a “life-cast” is made first. This is where a cast or mold of the body is formed in order for the prosthetic to be made to fit a particular actor.
        • To make a mold of the prosthetic Gypsum cement is used. The materials for the prosthetic tend to be: Foam Latex, Gelatin, and silicone. 
      • Examples
        • Dark Knight with Heath Ledger’s scarred mouth
        • Harry Potter characters
        • The Chronicles of Narnia won An Oscar for their silicone prosthetics in 2006
  • Forced Perspective
    • The use of techniques to build an optical illusion for the viewer so characters or items appear closer, farther, bigger, or smaller than in reality.
    • Lord of the Rings
      • An example of this is In the scene where Frodo and Gandalf are riding in the carriage together.  Gandalf looks large on the right while Frodo looks small to his left. To accomplish this Gandalf’s side of the carriage was built to be smaller and closer to the camera.  With a little help of direction as to where the actors should look from the directors, and Voila Gandalf is bigger!
    • Darby O’Gill and the Little People 
      • The set for the Leprechauns needed to be four times larger than that of the set for humans.
  • Animatronics (Animation and Electronics)
    • Where you electronically animate three-dimensional characters.  They may be remotely controlled or have been pre-programmed to do certain actions.
    • Even though it has become more popular to use computer graphics in film, it still isn’t a suitable replacement for animatronics in terms of realism.
    • Although animatronics did not technically exist until later, we could consider mechanical clocks to be so because of the little characters that would pop out on the hour.
    • At the 1939 World’s Fair a robot named Elektro made his debut and in 1940 his dog Sparko. 
    • In 1961, Walt Disney’s Imagineers developed a dancing animatronic man that caught a lot of attention! They were developing the technology to use in film and in his booth at the World’s Fair. 
      • The Tiki Birds at Disneyland were the first ever animatronic robots
    • In 1964, the first ever animatronic used in film appeared in Mary Poppins! 
    • Stan Winston
      • Animatronic designs are behind some of the most iconic robot animals and monsters in movie history!
        • The Alien queen in Aliens, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and the T1000 from Terminator 2.
        • From his obituary: Although he created some of the most famous special effects in movie history, Mr. Winston insisted that he cared less about technical wizardry than he did about storytelling. “It’s not about technology,” he once said. “It’s about writers writing wonderful stories with fantastic characters and me being able to create a visual image that’s beyond what you would expect.”
    • Jurassic Park
      • Won the 1994 Visual Effects Oscar
      • Even though the hydraulics were tested many times the crew was still scared of Rexy because of her gigantic size.
        • The final step was to put the foam rubber skin on, which had to be sewn and glued.  This was done by a team in which Alan Scott was a part of. You had to glue from the inside and Alan volunteered.  The worry was that because the dinosaur had to be powered on and fully extended that something would go wrong and crush him.  Their worst fear happened when the power went out for the studio. Alan pulled himself together and luckily was safe when the head lowered and four others were able to pry the jaw open and pull him out.
        • The T-Rex was the last largest head to tail animatronic to be produced for film. No animatronic that large has ever been featured in film since.
      • We discuss the use of stop-motion puppets to map out the movements of the raptors for CG artists. Here is the test video:
  • Miniatures & Models
    • Even today, this is the most cost-effective way to create landscapes
    • Created for Star Wars and Godzilla.
    • Used in films such as:
      • Blade Runner, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part 2, Independence Day, Titanic, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,  The Dark Knight, Inception
    • The trick is to slow the camera’s speed to the smaller scale


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